A documentary on Bene Israelis along the Konkan belt is an attempt to look through the kaleidoscope of personal memories, old travelogues, and local stories.
Bene Israel (Sons of Israel), a community of Jews, whose ancestors migrated to India from Israel after travelling through western Asia, at present form an integral cultural part of our country. Although in the 19th century, huge chunks of the community migrated from villages in the Konkan area to nearby cities like Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and Kolkata, traces of their descendants can still be spotted along the Konkan belt. The trails of which are meticulously captured by Suranjay Murshidabadi in his 25-minutes-long documentary Traces: Stories.
Winning the Mrinal Sen Golden awards for best direction at South Asian Short film festival, filmmaker Murshidabadi insists that it’s just a travelogue. “It loiters around the Konkan region, gently observing space like Aalo, Revdanda, Chawl, Ashtami and Navgaon to name a few. The film looks at the traces scattered all around and is an attempt to listen to the narrations attached to it,” shares the 32-year-old director.
Produced by Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the film narrates the oral myth of Bene Israel community, their arrival in India as well as the historical remains like the very first Portuguese fort and an abandoned royal bath of the Nizam.
“It’s a dialogue between myth and history, facts and fiction. The film deals with the memory of the people who live there, the way they want to remember it and the way they are rewriting it. As a result, to create a glimpse of the whole community, fragmentation was needed,” says Murshidabadi, for whom a film should evolve from one’s own experience and be a byproduct, rather than a product of their imagination.
An occasional painter, the director finds inspiration in sea and rocks. For he loves to observe the waves, patterns and the stories scattered around it, as a result he chose the Konkan belt. “From the distant past, a variety of people came to this land through the sea weaving a huge narrative. Many of them lost now, while some have taken completely different shape, making them hard to recognise,” smiles Murshidabadi.
The whole idea, as the director informs, is to experience the oral version of the community’s ‘origin myth’ about coming to India as well as the local stories of their life.
“We incorporated the practical facts of these communities about leaving India for Israel, stories of their rituals like sabbath, of how they used to celebrate. We even blend it with a dream of a local woman about prophet Eliza, who came to visit her at her place. So you can sense the cultural blending, that how over time a character or story originating from other parts of the world can adapt a new space emerging into a hybrid narrative. A closer look at the community’s history and you can see that they came here long back, and over time they almost forget who they were, except few daily habits and rituals. But the narratives were alive, which were spread and mingled throughout a new space,” he elaborates.
According to a folklore, around 1800 years ago, some of the ancestors had escaped to India after their ship got destroyed near Henri and Kenri Island. Only seven couple were able to survive who finally came to the Nagaon seashore. The resemblance of this myth to that of the Red Sea story is uncanny, Murshidabadi says, “While for a common Bene Isreali, who has been living here for don’t know exactly how long, it’s not impossible that their ancestral journey to India can get mingled with mythical Red Sea story. But you can still find goat or ram blood handprints on the walls of the community that evoke the memory of the 10th plague of Egypt from the Book of Exodus.”
A documentary where the myth isn’t in conflict with the history but a complementary component and more aptly an extension, this film is an amalgamation of a kaleidoscope of personal memory, old travelogues, rumours and local stories.
“Through stories, at times, we want to remember something in a certain way, sometimes we even alter or modify it completely. And these beautiful ways of remembering things always fascinated me. About the community too, through the stories I have tried to give an overall experience of their present situation,” he explains.
Shot across Alibaug, Borli, Chanel, Revdanda, Nagaon and Ashtami region, historical traces found in these areas have always fascinated the director for whom any trace is just a tip of an iceberg and he a detective throwing light on unresolved mysteries.
“Traces are always more than what you see. It gives you the scope for imagination. For me, a good film also opens up your imagination. It doesn’t ask you to think in a given direction, but provokes you to think and imagine,” he smiles.
As a filmmaker, Murshidabadi hopes that the audience finds the film interesting. “It can be just a cut or use of a particular sound or a pan, that should be enough. For some people, the gaze or use of certain direct can create some unease, but as a maker, I had my limitations, and art doesn’t need to get rid of all the imperfections,” he concludes.